These days, even the smallest things can take on greater significance. Like many of you, I’ve been in quarantine for weeks now, except to take occasional walks outdoors. And so it happened that last week, while hiking along Maryland’s C & O canal, I encountered a high-pitched sound. The single, repeated note seemed to be emanating from the forest.
Rounding a corner, I discovered the source- a shallow pool, colored neon green with algae. Leaning in, I could just make out a few voices. I had stumbled upon a chorus of spring peepers singing to their potential mates.
The Spring Peeper World
Spring peepers, or Pseudacris crucifer, are chorus frogs. They are the smallest frogs in the Chesapeake Bay area and one of the earliest to call and breed. Due to their high-pitched song, they are often confused with locusts. This explains the first part of their scientific name, pseudacris, which is derived from the Greek pseudes meaning ‘false’ and akris meaning ‘locust.’
The second part of the name, crucifer, refers to the distinctive cross-like pattern that the spring peeper bears on its back.
Spring peepers have a cross on their back/Photo: Steve Byland for shutterstock
At just under one inch and weighing less than a quarter-ounce, this tiny frog is easy to miss. Moreover, its drab gray-brown/olive color helps it blend in with its surroundings. But for what it may lack in size, the spring peeper more than makes up for in vocals. In early spring, its chirping call is so loud it can be heard for up to two miles.
How The Peep Show Works
So how does such a tiny animal make so much noise? Like all calling frogs, the male produces the sound by inflating a vocal sac located under his chin. Accomplishing this takes tremendous effort for the spring peeper, though, for when fully expanded, the sac is almost as big as he is.
Photo: Brian Lasenby for shutterstock
And these frogs can go on for hours. During breeding season, males typically gather at small pools by the hundreds to start their chorus. After establishing their territory, they begin calling, emitting a shrill peep once every second. The faster and louder a male sings, the better his chances for attracting a mate.
Sometimes, in order to boost the volume, males will even form trios (which also causes them to compete.) Females, however, typically choose mates by the quality of their individual song. This can vary depending on genetics, size and age, all of which can greatly affect the frequency of a male’s calling.
You can expect the volume to further increase following a spring rain when more males tend to congregate. Sometimes, however, an unexpected freeze can shut the show down for a while. That being said, spring peepers produce large quantities of glucose that act as a natural anti-freeze. This allows most of them to thaw back out and resume their song once temperatures warm up again.
This same quality also allows the frogs to effectively ‘freeze’ themselves to hibernate during the winter.
You really can have your flowers and eat them, too. So says Melissa Siegel, Master Gardener, gifted chef and local expert on edible flowers. I recently attended one of her lectures to learn more about this budding field.
PEOPLE HAVE BEEN EATING FLOWERS FOR CENTURIES
In the United States, we might be late to the table, but mankind has been eating flowers for centuries. Early reports indicate that the Romans used them for flavor and garnishes as did the Greeks, Chinese and Middle Eastern and Indian cultures. More recently, historical records show that Italians were harvesting and eating summer squash blossoms as far back as the mid 16th century.
Deep-fried squash blossoms are still popular in Italy today.
Today, edible flowers come from many sources, including trees, shrubs, herbs, vegetables and flowers grown solely for their blossoms. Some blooms can be eaten fresh off the stem, while others taste better steamed or sautéed. And flavors can vary considerably across species, depending on location and season.
KNOW YOUR FLOWERS
According to Siegel, before heading to the kitchen, it’s essential to know your flowers and, in particular, which ones are edible. And in the world of edible flowers, organic is key. NEVER eat flowers from florists, nurseries or garden centers. In many cases, these flowers have been treated with pesticides not labeled for food crops. The same goes for flowers growing along roadsides. In addition to being exposed to herbicides, they may have absorbed residue from oil and gas.
‘Never eat flowers from plants you bought at a nursery or grocery store,’ said Siegel. ‘Growers do a lot to make them look so perfect.’
Pansies for sale at the nursery – good for gardens, but not the kitchen.
Indeed, more than anything else, proper identification is crucial. Siegel recommends doing some research before you harvest. And if you have questions regarding a certain flower, don’t eat it. Go slow. Some blooms, when eaten in large quantities can trigger digestive problems.
BEWARE OF DRUG INTERACTIONS
Many flowers have medicinal properties that can interact with medicines you are taking. Others can cause allergies. To mitigate risk, go slow and introduce edible flowers in small quantities, one species at a time.
Borage, for example, is edible, but it also has medicinal uses. Siegel advises checking with your doctor before eating it to guard against any drug interactions.
LEARN WHICH PARTS ARE EDIBLE
In most cases, the term ‘edible flower’ refers to the petals only. Always remove the pistil and stamen (where the pollen is produced) before eating. These flower parts can detract from the taste and occasionally trigger an allergic reaction.
Pistils and stamen/Photo: DAF Fotos for shutterstock.com
PREPARING EDIBLE FLOWERS
Looking for the best flavor? Siegel recommends harvesting blossoms in the morning when their water content is at its highest. Remove the stamens and styles, then wash the flowers gently under running water, pat them dry and eat. Or, place them between damp paper towels and store in the refrigerator. Most will last for up to a week.
Some flowers like hibiscus can be dried and used as herbs. To dry the blossoms, Siegel advises wrapping them in paper towels and placing a heavy book on top to absorb water. Then microwave the blossoms for 1 ½ minutes.
Dried hibsicus flowers
USING EDIBLE FLOWERS
These days, edible flowers can be used in an infinite variety of ways. You can infuse them in teas, drinks, oils and water, add them to salads, fish and meats, candy them and apply them to desserts. Most chefs recommend keeping dishes simple, however, so as not to overpower the delicate taste of the blooms.
‘You can do just about anything,’ says Siegel.
Sponge cake with sugared flowers/Photo: Stephanie Frey for shutterstock.com
Ready to give things a whirl? Here are 10 of Siegel’s favorite edible flowers that you can grow in your garden.
MELISSA’S FAVORITE EDIBLE FLOWERS
Below are ten edible flowers that Siegel cooks with regularly. Easy-to-grow, harvest and prepare, they are all plants that can be grown in the garden. In fact, many of us probably have a few meals’-worth of options flourishing in our backyard right now.
Also known as starflower, borage is an annual flowering plant with vivid blue blossoms and leaves that taste a lot like cucumber. Pollinators love it and its free-seeding habit makes it a beautiful addition to the garden.
USES: Toss borage into green or fruit salads for a bright burst of color. Or, for a unique twist, try floating some blossoms in lemonade, iced tea or a gin & tonic. You can also candy the petals.
Also known as pot marigold, calendula has a flavor that ranges from spicy to bitter depending on the variety. When it’s fried in oil, it often tastes like saffron (which is why it’s also referred to as Poor Man’s Saffron.) Siegel describes its flavor as slightly sweet and just a little bit spicy. Only the petals are edible.
USES: Use the red, orange or yellow blooms to color and flavor butter and rice. Or, sprinkle petals on soups, pasta and salads to spice things up. Siegel especially loves calendula on deviled eggs.
Blooming from July through August, zucchini makes a delicious summer treat. A tiny bit sweet, it has a soft, velvety texture and slight floral aroma. However, it’s worth learning the difference between the male and female flowers.
“Better to eat the males because if you eat the female flowers, you won’t have any zucchini plants.” says Siegel.
USES: Fry them or bake them, or cut them up in salads. Siegel also mixes zucchini blossoms in with her scrambled eggs.
Hibiscus is either an annual or perennial depending on where you live. Its petals are slightly acidic and have a citrusy, cranberry-like flavor.
USES: Hibiscus makes a great flavoring for iced-tea.
While there are many lavenders to choose from, the best one for cooking, according to Siegel is English lavender, Lavandula aungustifolia. It has a smoother taste than most other varieties.
Lavender angustifolia ‘Munstead’
USES: Steep dried flowers in tea, sprinkle over desserts, infuse them in butter or use as salad garnishes. Lavender is highly perfumed and can quickly overpower a dish, so best use it as a garnish or for decoration.
Easy-to-grow nasturtiums rank among the most common edible flowers. In Latin, nasturtium means ‘nose twist’, which aptly describes their peppery taste. (Young leaves are edible as well.) Moreover, the bright colored petals are high in vitamins A, C and D.
USES: Nasturtium flowers make a great accent in salads and also work well as a garnish for fish and meat. Siegel also uses them with sushi, in place of wasabi.
Everyone knows pansies, but lesser known is that they are edible. Yellow, white and purple blooms all have a slightly grassy flavor.
Purple pansies are as delicious as they are beautiful.
USES: Pansies are most commonly used to add color and interest to green salads and fruit salads. Siegel also enjoys them on Ritz crackers with cream cheese.
All roses are edible and the darker the variety, the stronger the flavor. But, you can’t eat the whole petal. Siegel advises separating the petals from the rest of the flower just prior to use to reduce wilting. And always remove the bitter, white portion at the base of the petal where it was attached to the flower. Rose petals taste slightly fruity and a little like strawberries.
Rose petals taste like strawberries.
USES: Use smaller varieties to garnish cocktails, ice cream or desserts and sprinkle larger varieties on salads. Freeze rose petals in ice cubes or try your hand at making rose petal jam.
Edible salvias (sage) are not be confused with ornamental salvias, which are not edible. These woody perennials with lip-shaped flowers have a strong, musky taste and aroma. Many people refer to the blue-flowered varieties as spicy while the red-flowered ones present as more flowery.
Salvia microphylla is said to have a black currant taste.
USES: As most cooks know, sage is terrific with any meat, and (especially roast chicken and turkey.) It can also be used to flavor vinegar and tastes great when steeped in tea.
Easy-to-grow violas are not only colorful, but they are also delicious. They have a sweet, slight minty flavor.
USES: Try these miniature, heart-shaped petals in soups and salads, or sauté them in butter and oil like spinach. Like pansies, violas can also be candied or used as decoration on cakes and ice cream. They’re also great with chocolate. For a summer surprise, Siegel recommends freezing the tiny petals in ice cubes and using them to add elegance to tall glasses of lemonade or iced tea.
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